Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Review: Screams of a Winter Night (1979)


1979's Screams of a Winter Night is now on Blu-ray courtesy of Code Red and offers an opportunity to see not only the original theatrical version that played in drive-in-cinemas and theaters almost forty years ago, but also to see a newly-restored, longer cut of the film that was believed to have been lost. The never-before-seen version of the movie runs nearly two hours (not 124 minutes, as the package proclaims) and adds over a half-hour back to the film's running time. Depending on your tolerance for low-budget seventies horror, this is either a good thing or a bad thing.

Screams of a Winter Night combines a couple of horror approaches with modest results. First, it's one of the many "cabin in the woods" movies that populated drive-in screens and, later, video store shelves. I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and the horror trope of dropping a group of young people into the wilderness will always resonate with me; it's primal, and it preys upon our instincts of survival. The movie also utilizes the anthology approach, with our college students regaling each other with creepy tales in order to pass a cold, winter evening. In the theatrical cut, there were three such stories. In the extended cut, there are four. These segments are book-ended by wraparounds that tap into Native American mythology to create an effectively-chilling atmosphere.
The film shot on location in Louisiana, which gives viewers a break from the traditional scenery of southern California. In fact, one of the benefits of regional low-budget cinema is its ability to immerse an audience in an environment that can feel totally foreign. In this case, the creaky, barren trees and the mossy swamps of the deep south give this film added atmosphere.
The director (James L. Wilson, in his only directorial effort) casts area actors who had all been working in theater and small productions. It's a good thing the cast had some acting experience, because this movie requires quite a bit of its performers. Each anthology segment features members of the main cast from the wraparound A-story, meaning that every actor has to pull double duty at minimum. This approach actually ends up being a lot of fun, lending the production more of a "repertory" vibe. Two of the segments even film on their real college campus (Caspari Hall at Northwestern State University) in the dormitories that are now reported to be actually haunted. It all adds to the hometown flavor.
Some of the anthology segments are better than others, but none of them feel like home runs. Part of the problem is that this movie is forty years old and we can spot the twist endings a mile away. That's not the movie's fault, of course, it's just a testament to how well-worn some of these horror devices have become. I should also point out that it's not always what a movie does that makes it interesting, but how it does it. That's really the appeal here for horror fans and cult cinema enthusiasts. The filmmakers deliberately stayed away from extreme violence, sex, nudity, etc, in order to pursue a PG rating, which they received, so fans hoping for traditional B-movie exploitation might be disappointed.

While the overall movie isn't a knockout, there are things to appreciate, like the sweet van that our characters cruise in, the many macho mustaches, some great seventies drive-in movie music, and the unsettling use of locals (including the real town sheriff, a mountain of a man). Horror fans will also be happy to see a short scene that features a very young William Ragsdale, the actor who would go on to fame as Charley Brewster in Tom Holland's Fright Night.
The independent production shot for 300,000 dollars, which wasn't insignificant for the time, and all of that expense ends up on screen. The location cinematography is fantastic, and there are multiple helicopter shots to establish just how far away from civilization we are. Creature effects are at a minimum, but the climax of the movie is very impressive, pulling out all the stops.

On the downside, the two-hour cut of this movie really feels longer than it actually is. I haven't watched all of the 90 minute cut, but I suspect even the shorter version is still probably ten or fifteen minutes too long, given the nature of this film. A good half hour passes before we're even introduced to the first anthology segment. This is redeemed (mostly) by the explosive final act, as everything comes to a pulse-pounding conclusion.
Code Red's Blu-ray presentation of the restored, longer version of the film comes from a new 2K scan of the original 16mm film negative, and looks pretty good. Grain is natural and film-like, and the shadows stand up well to the HD presentation. The only thing I wish could have been done to further clean up the movie is a bit of color correction, as large parts of the film are affected by pale speckles that seem to stem from the source itself. Still, for a cheap seventies drive-in feature, this looks better than I would have expected. The original theatrical version is also presented in what appears to be an unrestored scan of a battered and faded print that has a ton of drive-in charm.

Rounding out the package is a 21-minute interview with actor Gil Glasgow, who is one of the members of this ensemble cast. He's gregarious and full of information about the shooting of the film, his experiences as an actor both before and after his work on SOAWN, and is very honest about the movie itself, if not comically so. Near the end of the interview, when asked what the appeal of the movie is all these years later, he admits to being befuddled and says that he would love to know that himself. His concluding statement is "I can see the appeal, I guess."
Screams of the Winter Night is not a long-lost classic, but I will always champion small films made by men and women who pooled their money, grabbed a camera, and went to work on creating something. This flick comes from an era of cinema that was high on imagination (and other substances, as well) and willing to take chances. The weeks of work undertaken by a small cast and crew in Natchitoches, Louisiana during the winter of 1978 are forever preserved in HD thanks to this release, and I'm glad to have it on my shelf.

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